By LAM CHI LEUNG
This interview, published first by the South Korean organization Workers’ Solidarity, is reprinted here with the permission of the author. Lam Chi Leung is a revolutionary socialist based in Hong Kong.
• It has been one year since the Security Law was enacted. The law certainly seems to impact leftists as well as liberals in Hong Kong. How has the situation in Hong Kong changed since the Security law?
In the 12 months since the implementation of the National Security Law (NSL), things have been grim in Hong Kong: more than 10,000 people have been arrested for participating in the anti-ELAB movement of two years ago, and more than 2500 have been prosecuted. At the same time, some 100 people have been arrested for NSL offences, including Apple Daily founder Jimmy Lai and some of his senior staff, 47 opposition figures who participated in last year’s pro-democracy primaries, members of opposition groups, along with demonstrators. A number of political and civil organizations from the opposition camp (including pro-democracy, religious, and doctors’ organizations, as well service sector unions) have announced that they are disbanding.
Apart from Apple Daily, which was forced to cease publication in late June, Hong Kong’s alternative media has also come under serious political pressure. For example, the online website Stand News has deleted all of its old articles. Radio Television Hong Kong, which is a public broadcaster but in principle has editorial independence, has been subject to strict government censorship in the past six months. Certain programs have been suspended, and some hosts have been replaced. Citizens have become cautious in posting online and voicing political slogans, fearing they may be detected by national security authorities, or else be reported.
The freedom of speech and press freedoms that Hong Kong residents have enjoyed for the past 40 years are now seriously imperiled.
According to the NSL, not only actions but even speech that is considered separatist, subversive, or in collusion with foreign forces, can be criminally punished. The definitions of “separatism”, “subversion,” and “collusion with foreigners” are extremely vague. In deliberately refusing to clarify just where exactly its political “red line” lies, the Beijing authorities are intimidating the citizens so as to facilitate government control.
Some pro-Beijing figures have already said that the NSL is not just of use in attacking the opposition but should be the catalyst for a “political purge” to last at least two years, in order to effect a wholesale transformation of Hong Kong’s judicial, social, cultural, ideological, education, media and other spheres. Moreover, the Hong Kong government is preparing to restart the legislative process for Article 23 of the Hong Kong Basic Law (which stipulates that the Hong Kong government should establish its own legislation to protect national security), in order to strengthen its political control. In 2003, a march of 500,000 city residents led to the shelving of similar Article 23 legislation.
• What kind of media was Apple Daily? How did it criticize the government? Why did the government take such a harsh measure?
Apple Daily [was] launched in 1995. It is Hong Kong’s largest selling newspaper, and one that supports the democratic opposition. The founder Jimmy Lai has long supported mainstream pro-democracy groups like the Democratic Party and has privately donated to such parties. During the 2019 anti-ELAB campaign, he went to the U.S. to meet with Republican and Democratic politicians, telling them that “the people of Hong Kong stand with the U.S. in fighting a war of values against the CCP.” It’s not hard to see that Apple Daily was a thorn in the side of the Beijing government.
Apple Daily’s political stance is one of opposition to CCP authoritarianism and criticism of the Hong Kong government. It is anti-communist (be it genuine or fake communism), pro-American, and supportive of free-market capitalism. Apple Daily also adopts a tabloid style—hounding mentally ill female celebrities or ethnic minorities, for example, and taking articles they are paid to run.
The socialist left opposes the forced suspension of any publication, including Apple Daily, and defends its freedom of speech. Having said that, we cannot abandon our principles and support the political line of Apple Daily.
• What kinds of reactions are there on the forced closure of Apple Daily?
The majority of residents sympathize with Apple Daily. On June 24, its last day of publication, a million copies were printed, and the run was sold out. Some residents went to the newspaper’s office building to express support for its journalists.
This year’s June 4 rally to commemorate Tiananmen, and the July 1 pro-democracy march on the anniversary of the hand-back, were both banned. Given the current level of political pressure, it is hard to imagine we will see large-scale demonstrations of public support for Apple Daily, but most residents oppose the government’s authoritarianism.
• We’ve heard that the authorities are pushing an anti-fake-news law as well. What’s the law aiming for?
In early May, Carrie Lam announced that the government was exploring the possibility of passing a “Fake News Law”, which would deal with “misinformation, hate speech, and lies.” Obviously, this “Fake News Law” is intended to allow the government to further clamp down on news reporting and online discussion.
Existing legislation in Hong Kong already contains penalties for spreading false information, e.g., for defamation, for circulating misleading investment information, or for spreading fake news relating to health remedies and medicine—there are regulations for all of these things, and there is no need for a separate “Fake News Law.”
• Biden is rallying Western countries against China with rhetoric of democracy against authoritarianism. And Hong Kong repression often is one of elements of that rhetoric. How should the leftists respond to this?
Both Biden and Trump have said that they oppose the repression in Hong Kong. However, the U.S. monopoly capital that they represent remains inextricably linked to circles within the Chinese bureaucracy and unwilling to truly abandon the Chinese market. There is a long history of exchange between U.S. law enforcement and the Hong Kong police. Weapons and other riot control technology used by the Hong Kong police have been supplied by American companies for many years, many of which are also used on black American protesters and their allies.
During the anti-ELAB movement, Trump at one point referred to the Hong Kong mass movement as a “riot,” adopting the same language as the Beijing government. We can anticipate that Biden will simply pay lip service to the issue—he won’t be any firmer and effective than Trump towards China.
In 2019-20 quite a lot of Hong Kongers looked to Trump, hoping that he would succeed in forcing the Beijing government to end its crackdown on the Hong Kong mass movement and stop the passage of the NSL. Far-right localists in Hong Kong encouraged this trend, and cultivated unrealistic expectations of the U.S. They glorified Trump’s right-wing populism and claimed that Black Lives Matter was a CCP conspiracy against Trump. With Trump’s departure from office, these Hong Kongers have come to a point of desperation, unable to see a way forward.
For many years our position has been that in order to win democracy and autonomy for Hong Kong, we need the support of workers and progressive social movements everywhere, and a priority is to win the understanding and support of workers in the Chinese mainland. To pin the future of Hong Kong’s democracy on America or other Western imperialist countries and their capitalist parties will in the end only turn it into a geopolitical tool in the struggle for hegemony between China and Western imperialism. It will allow the CCP bureaucracy to demonise the Hong Kong democracy movement and successfully drive a wedge between the people of the mainland and Hong Kong.
The only true alternative is to unite the people of the mainland and Hong Kong in a collective struggle for democracy and workers’ power across the whole of China.
• Two years ago, there was enormous protest against the Extradition Law. And it seems that there needs to be another one against recent repressions. What are the prospects of resistance in Hong Kong? What’s Socialist Left’s focus of effort in responding to the current situation?
Hong Kong has now experienced the failures of the 2014 Umbrella Movement and the 2019 anti-ELAB campaign. Coupled with today’s severe government crackdown, we are unlikely to see mass movements in the coming 2-3 years on the scale of these past two events. To a large extent, the future of democracy in Hong Kong depends on whether there occur political or economic crises in mainland China. If bureaucratic rule is not weakened, then Hong Kong is facing quite a grim period, one even more difficult than at present.
Hong Kong residents who are pro-democracy have not changed their stance, but some have lost their bearings, and some have chosen to emigrate. Nevertheless, some too have begun to review the goals and strategies of past mass movements. The new generation of young people, in particular, are willing to consider different opinions—including those of the socialist left—and weigh the experience of the “New Trade Union Movement.”
The experience of these past struggles would seem to support what the socialist left has been advocating: (1) We need the self-organization of the masses, not loose and irresponsible guerrilla actions; (2) We need the self-organization of workers, and direct action such as strikes. For this we need to combine the demands for political democracy with anti-capitalist social and economic demands; (3) We need to express solidarity with the struggles of workers and peasants in mainland China for their rights, so as to link the progressive forces of Hong Kong and mainland China.
Although Hong Kong’s socialist left has only limited influence, there was some positive development from 2009 to 2014. Subsequently, because of the rise of far-right localist ideology, the broad left fell into political confusion (some people were even won over to far-right localism) and was unable to intervene effectively in the mass movement. Today, in the new political environment, the socialist left needs to work with the new generation of youth, to organize on the basis of the issues that most concern the public, and at the same time clarify its ideas (e.g. the difference between revolutionary socialism, nationalism, and far-right populism). Only on this basis can it gradually strengthen its influence.
PHOTO: Hong Kong riot police fire tear gas as hundreds of protesters march along a downtown street in Hong Kong, May 24, 2020. (Vincent Yu / AP)